Originally published in The Tablet in March, 2007, and again here in 2015… this version is slightly edited.
The late Stephen Jay Gould, Harvard biologist and popular science writer, once described the roles of science and religion as “non-overlapping magisteria” – they should not be in conflict because they never come in contact. I could see his point; as cases from Galileo to Dawkins have shown, authority in one field rarely translates into authority in the other.
But as those same cases also demonstrate, science and religion do overlap all the time in at least one locus: in the human being, who chooses how to live in a world that has both science and religion. Indeed, the same is true of all the worlds each of us live in: our politics, school, favorite music, social background, sports teams, family. We all have our homes in each of those fields.
I felt caught up in such a web back in 2007 when a friend of mine (an Indian, from India) at the University of Wisconsin invited me to an Indian (Native American) reservation in northern Wisconsin, to join with other invited space scientists and Native Elders in presenting science and creation stories.
The whole concept of mingling “science” with “storytelling” would have had an earlier generation of scientists foaming with rage. Once, philosophers of science insisted that our work had a truth value superior to any other form of human knowledge because it was based on the pure reason of mathematics. They called themselves “logical positivists.” But ultimately their greatest accomplishment was to show that science itself was illogical: just because the light comes on when you flip the switch a hundred times in a row, doesn’t prove that it will work the hundred and first time. Science has to assume, without justification, that a repeated pattern is evidence of a deeper law, not just a string of coincidences. But sometimes it’s wrong.
A later generation of philosophers have pointed out how strongly science has been shaped by accidents of history and the personalities of who was doing the science. It really is a story, one that can be told around a campfire… or over a beer at a conference, late into the evening after the sessions are over.
Even the mathematics we use is a form of poetry: Newton’s equation for gravity provides a beautiful metaphor for the path of a falling rock. Like good poetry, it allows our human minds to see things in a new and deeper way. And it is judged by its elegance of form as well as its content of truth.
We choose the stories we tell for the truth we need to convey, and adapt those stories to the audience we’re speaking to. It’s the same truth, the same story teller, but a new story every time we tell it. That’s why we never tire of seeing Shakespeare performed; indeed, every performance, even of the same production by the same cast, is a new experience.
Thus we have the details of the solar nebula, the cloud of gas and dust from which the planets formed, described in very different ways by astrophysicists observing distant nebulae, and meteoriticists looking at rocks from the nebula that made our solar system.Thus we have two creation stories in Genesis in Chapters 1 and 2, which differ in the sorts of details that would drive literalists nuts if they actually were paying attention. Thus we have creation stories from other, non-European cultures, that still have a power to help us place ourselves in the universe. Someday we may even be able to trade creation stories with ETs.
To travel to this storytelling with Native American elders, I’ll be flying to a remote wilderness area in northern Wisconsin, far from the paths where I normally work. Oddly enough, though, a forty-five minute drive from there will bring me to my brother’s house in Michigan. Some locations are closer to home than you might think.